Friday, January 16, 2015

Las Vegas: America's Cultural Capital at its Former Best?


I have just returned from a three-day "el-cheapo" package visit to the cultural capital of the USA -- once known as "sin city" -- Las Vegas. I make an occasional pilgrimage to this mirage-in-the-desert not to gamble (can't afford it), but to observe American life outside of the insular D.C. "beltway"/East coast. To see us Americans actually walking -- as some miraculously attempt on the LV strip -- is a sight in and of itself.

Being overweight myself, "who am I to judge" (to quote Pope Francis) about the incredibly obese people moving/struggling along the strip? Are we becoming a USA physically deformed people, I could not help but think, through our very American own eat-all-you-can "excesses" (or is it yet another USA big business, big media conspiracy -- convincing us that we need to gulp down food now, non-stop?)

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The hotel where I stayed -- the Venetian -- is laudable for its impeccable middle-brow comforts (including amazingly free-flowing showers in your room, making you feel as clean as a whistle; imagine, in contrast, swimming in Venice's canals to wash your sinful body).

But the Venetian is also something of a pleasure prison:
Little real light and low ceilings. Guards checking you out before you get to your room via an elevator ("your room id, please"). Ceiling cameras. Your room's "bar" with a computer system to "sense" what drinks (even non-alcoholic) you take out of it. Exorbitant prices for everything. Phony-polite PR staff ("Hi, my name is [you name it], how can I help you?" [aggressively stated].) Underpaid Hispanics maids shamelessly exploited to pick up the mess in rooms. Asphyxiating cigarette smoke in the gambling areas. No oxygen, no natural light! Real fun?
When I got out of the Venetian casino to get a breath of fresh air on LV's incredibly spic-'n-spam strip, I was -- still am -- fascinated by the city's clear (well, relatively clear) desert skies. Same (but not for the same ecological stupefaction) regarding some of its architecture. I especially get a [camp] kick out of you -- you, Caesar's statue -- outside of the Caesar's Palace hotel.

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Caesar himself would have loved it, mostly because it is a glorious depiction of himself. I lived in Rome for four years as an adolescent, and learned where/how the città eterna romantic ruins lie (no pun intended) -- the ancient Romans were perhaps as "vulgar" self-promoters as we Americans are. ("Vulgarity begins when imagination succumbs to the explicit"; yes, Doris Day said this; she would know.)

LV entrepreneur Steve Wynn, a relatively civilized real estate tycoon (oxymoron?) with an artistic eye, has built another quite vulgar, but arguably architecturally laudable hotel (of course labeled pretentiously in his name,"Wynn"). It comes close to the elegant, with just that touch of money-looking hype that appeals to the nouveaux riches.

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Wynn's the guy who said "Las Vegas is sort of like how God would do it if he money." I don't think the Medici would have approved of Steve -- too much competition.

I was glad that my favorite homeless person on the strip was still there with his handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard: "My wife got a sex change operation and ran away with my girlfriend." Other additions to homeless/drunk/drugged-out strip life: "Help me with soap not dope"; "donations welcome for alcohal [sic] research."

Realist (cynic?) that I am, I think that these "street people" are part of the overall LV "tourist package" (Please correct me if my speculation is inhumanely off-the-mark). Make 'em tourists feel guilty, and they'll feel so good having an opportunity to spend "only" $3.50 for a bottle of water in one of the Strip's rip-off shops.

Passé?

That marvel of American ingenuity -- a gangster creation in a nowhere place ("there is no there there") -- no matter how much I marvel at it, seemed a bit passé this time around. Ads for the oh-so-20th-century Sinatra and Beatles shows

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appear in the once-named Reinvention City far too many times. They look worn-out. Vegas is stanco, to use an Italian word Frank Sinatra might have recognized when he got his toupée.

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